Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Wednesday wisdom: Duty of imagination

I don't remember exactly when I encountered this quote by Alice Korngold, but I do remember its impact: adding the missing piece to the nonprofit governance puzzle and making me a lifetime member of the Alice Korngold fan club.

I'd already sensed, but not quite articulated, the void between the idealism and stewardship motivation behind why most of us agree to serve on boards and the practice that we usually encounter once we're on the job. This simple - and simply profound - quote completed the puzzle: our responsibilities involve more than oversight. They also include definition and advancement of a better future for our communities. That should  be obvious, but Alice's gentle reminder is necessary and welcome nonetheless.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

10 ways to vitalize board committees

This post is part of the occasional "10 ways" series - quick, practical responses to common questions about nonprofit boards and the work that they do.

While the complex scope of nonprofit governance overwhelms many a board, most already have the basic structure in place to both break down the work into manageable areas and the option to bring individual members closer to the reason they agreed to serve in the first place: its committees.

Simply having these standing groups in place doesn't guarantee that they will function effectively. But with the right context and support in place, committees offer the potential to transform the work of our boards. Following are 10 thoughts about how to pave the way.

1. Establish committees that advance board priorities, not staff functions. The former ensures that they feed the board's governance responsibilities (e.g., community outreach, resource development, accountability). The former invites micromanagement (e.g., marketing, personnel).

2. Recognize that some committees should not be "forever" commitments. Some assignments may be better off delegated to task forces, short-term groups that convene to address a specific issue or project, then disbanded when the work is complete. This focuses committee members' time and energy on efforts that contribute to the board's work and the agency's mission, whatever that may be. It also reduces the risk that we'll be wasting valuable board time in committees that serve no strategic purpose but continue to meet because they exist.

3. Offer direction. When setting up a committee, define a clear purpose for its existence. Set boundaries for the scope of its work and its connection to the board's larger responsibilities. Then, within that framework, identify annual tasks that feed into the board's goals for the same time frame.

4. Charge them with becoming the board's resident experts on their assigned area(s). Expect committees to develop deeper knowledge about a smaller subset of board work. Ask them to explore industry standards, national trends, etc. Charge them with identifying how that bigger picture translates into "local" issues and opportunities: how they impact your nonprofit's clients and communities. Hold the committee accountable for expanding the board's collective knowledge base while narrowing the scope of what an individual member is expected to know deeply. A bonus: Many members will find reward in having an opportunity to learn and apply that new knowledge in service to others.

5. As possible, assign committee membership according to member interests and strengths.  It may not be uniformly possible to do this and fully staff each work group. But as a rule, confident board members who are interested in the work with which they're charge will be more engaged and successful. Begin the committee staffing process with the goal of matching members to their areas of interest.

6. Ask them to share routine information in writing. In the highly transient environment of nonprofit boards, paper trails are a good thing. Written committee reports provide an efficient way to share information that does not require action with current board members and offer context/historical perspective for those who will follow. More important, moving away from oral reports opens up precious meeting time to discuss the questions that emerge from committees' research.

7. Ask them to facilitate discussions related to their work areas. As your internal experts, your committees should be helping the board generate the strategic, fiduciary and generative questions that it should be asking and exploring. They should be trusted to participate in leading the discussions based on those questions, helping to guide the board into informed deliberation. They also have an opportunity to demonstrate/build situational leadership that serves the group as a whole.

8. Give them the support they need. Committees may require a range of resources to fulfill their responsibilities. Some of their needs may be informational, e.g., connection to mission-area sources (websites, reports, videos, etc.). Some may be developmental, such as opportunities to participate in face to face or distance-delivered training programs. Connections to larger peer communities, engaged in similar work, may be another need. Whatever support is required, do your best to provide whatever can be reasonably accessed.

9. Where appropriate, expand community membership to the community. Most committees benefit from the added energy and connections that community members bring to the table. Where possible, invite volunteers seeking ways to increase their participation. Ask professionals to share their specific expertise in a focused committee assignment. Expand your reach into the community via these new connections as you create new ambassadors for your work. An added benefit: Your committees become a natural pipeline for prospective board members - you already know their work styles, their commitment to your mission, and their leadership potential.

10. Evaluate them.  Just as you owe your committees a clear purpose and benchmarks for success, you also owe them the courtesy of regular assessment of their work. Committee evaluation not only holds your chief work groups accountable to the board for contributing to its forward progress, it also offers feedback on - and acknowledgment of - those contributions.

Our committees hold far more potential than we are currently allowing them to deliver. How have you engaged your committees in interesting and productive ways? What is possible with more involved and motivated work groups? What can we do to transform our committees?

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Wednesday wisdom: 100-percent success

Today's Wednesday Wisdom, a perpetual favorite, is courtesy of Hildy Gottlieb, co-founder of Creating the Future:

This is the vision bottom line, for the board and everyone else in the organization. From a governance standpoint, this set of questions should be ever-present. As it sets direction, as it defines programs and as it evaluates progress - it all needs to come back to this vision.

How would a board's work be different with this as the foundation?

Monday, June 17, 2013

Fountain pens and governance

What can the experience of writing with a fine fountain pen teach us about nonprofit governance?

Before dismissing me as having completely lost my mind, let me explain the context for my question:

The more I explore how we conceptualize nonprofit governance - and the typical solutions offered for improving board performance - the more convinced I am that we need to be looking in totally different places for inspiration.
The past few months, I've been immersed in reading about creativity, where I'm learning about the value of drawing from patterns found in unexpected and unrelated sources for true innovation.

As my daily communication becomes even more technology-driven, even/especially in the nonstop writing that I do, I've rediscovered fountain pens and the pleasure of spending time putting one - filled with great ink - to fine paper. In that process, I have found a new way to enhance my creative potential.

How does that lead to comparing fountain pens and governance? It's about those patterns, of identifying them and linking them in innovative new ways. As I reflected on my new passion for the great analog experience and pondered how I might apply lessons from that experience to a boards setting, three potential connections emerged:

  • Expectations
  • Environment 
  • Tools

Where am I finding the parallels? Let me outline them for you.



If I'm conscious, I'm writing. It's a hazard of my professional life and the way I am hard-wired personally. Obviously, most of what I write in a day is quite mundane. But for explicitly creative work, it's different, beginning with anticipated outcomes. When I find quiet time to sit down with a favorite pen and a fresh, ink-friendly notebook or pad, I expect a different experience. In this state of deliberate practice, I expect to generate ideas, insights and occasionally radical thoughts. That's what (usually) happens: I create something special, because I expect that result.

Part of board performance is a function of our expectations. That's true of the board as a whole, from an accountability standpoint.  It's also true of the individual member experience. If I expect an engaging experience, where creative problem solving and problem finding are the anticipated outcomes, I'm more likely to provide just that.



When I sit down in a space conducive to wide-open thinking, creative outcomes are inevitable. Sometimes, that environment is completely quiet. Sometimes, there's just enough white noise to help me focus on the task at hand. A comfortable environment relatively free of mind-jarring distractions facilitates a quality of thinking and reflection that is most likely to yield fresh insights. It helps to pave the path toward the intended outcome.

Nonprofit boards need their own version of that stimulating environment. It's true of the physical space in which they work. (Don't expect great insights from people crowded onto rickety folding chairs, in a stuffy, overheated room.) It's also true of the environment created by the agenda: where thinking, deliberating, reflecting and sharing are highest priorities, creative governance is possible. Boards need space, physical and otherwise, to generate creative visions of the future and equally creative paths to getting there.



When I sit down to write in this mode, tools count. I require more than reliability. I need tools that appeal to the senses. The feel, the colors, the smoothness of ink streaming onto paper - it all helps to facilitate the flow of ideas. Certainly, any pen and paper combination can be used to capture ideas. Obviously, the nearest electronic device can accomplish the same. But for me, tools that stimulate the senses offer the closest I can come to guaranteed artistry and answers to life's pressing questions.

Does your board have what's necessary to stimulate their governance senses? Does it have the information it needs, in the format it needs, to make the best decisions possible? Do they face thought-provoking questions, with the right mix of perspectives at the table to do so as expansively as possible? Does the agenda encourage - even require - active participation? Is it focused more on the future than the past? Do their tools of governance expand their sense of what's possible? Do they have the support they need to focus on this critical work?

Okay, so maybe this was more than a small stretch. But if we are to transform nonprofit governance, we need to step out of the normal modes of thinking and acting. If we are to innovate, we need to find inspiration in unexpected places.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Wednesday wisdom: Boards and innovation

This week, I'm launching a new summer (maybe beyond) series, Wednesday Wisdom. In these posts, I will share quotes, from a variety of sources, that have the potential to inspire and inform the work of nonprofit boards. I undoubtedly will offer some insight into why I'm sharing it. But mostly, I'll let the wisdom and the words speak for themselves. Enjoy!
How much time and energy do our boards devote to promoting innovation, particularly when it comes their own performance and expectations for their respective CEOs? How do they model innovative thinking in their own work? 

How does all of that compare to time spent analyzing and sustaining the status quo? 

What might be possible if our boards understood and valued the impact that innovative thinking and action might have on our agencies reaching their full potential - and eventually their missions?

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Nonprofit boards in flow

What happens when a nonprofit board reaches that rare and wonderful state of flow? What does it look like? What does it take to get to that point? Is it even possible?

I read Keith Sawyer's book, Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaborationas part of this year's "process and practice" quest. While the entire book illuminated the potential (and the potential pitfalls) of boards as high-functioning groups, one section in particular caught my eye: how "flow" is created in groups.

I've been intrigued by the concept since first encountering the work of Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi (starting with his seminal book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience).  It's recently been stashed away in a far corner of my brain, though. It took Sawyer's book to connect it to my current questions about nonprofit board effectiveness.

Obviously, I encourage you to purchase and read the book, as it is filled with insights into what powers and inhibits group creativity. Today, I would like to share my thoughts on the group flow factors that Sawyer describes.  (Note: mine is an electronic version of this text, which challenges my ability to offer specific locations for quotes that I'll share. This material was presented in Chapter 3.)

10 conditions for group flow

1. The group's goal. A goal that invites flow is "a problem-solving creative task" that everyone understands. It is explicitly stated. There is a paradox: A goal that "provides a focus for the team - just enough of one so that team members can tell when they move closer to a solution - but one that is open-ended enough for problem-finding creativity to emerge." This fits the generally complex nature of not only the typical nonprofit mission but the generative work that boards are uniquely called to do. 

2. Close listening. When everyone is engaged in "deep listening," they are responding and hearing, versus rehearsing what they will say next. That's interpersonal communication 101, but it's also easily forgotten when we're jockeying for position to make sure our ideas are heard. Boards in flow understand that the free interchange of ideas is more likely to put them on the path to the creative connections and solutions required to fulfill complex missions.

3. Complete concentration. Sawyer describes this state as "when a group can draw a boundary, however temporary or virtual, between the group's activity and everything else." Obviously, we can't stay in idea-generation mode forever (though, personally, I've yet to interact with a board trapped in creative mode). Once we have consensus about the direction we need to take as a board, we need to commit - as a board - to that direction. When we are able to do that, without allowing ourselves to be distracted by unproductive tangents, we are headed toward a state of flow.

4. Being in control. "Autonomy, competence, and readiness" - that's how Sawyer describes this condition. As I read that, I couldn't help thinking, "That's governance at its most basic level." Boards lead in this state. They act as if they are able to control (as much as anyone can control humanity) their actions and their environment. They are disciplined.

5. Blending egos. If we've ever served on a nonprofit board, we've encountered egos that didn't always fit quite so well. If we've served long enough, we've undoubtedly experienced egos that clashed mightily and hampered or completely dashed the group's ability to govern. "In group flow, each person's idea builds on those just contributed by his or her colleagues," Sawyer writes. For a state of flow to exist, board members need to be able to set aside the need to dominate and let the collective personality emerge.

6. Equal participation. When a board is in flow, everyone accepts an equal role in - and equal responsibility for - the outcomes. Everyone brings comparable skills to the table and does so willingly, in the spirit of creating something better out of those shared contributions.

7. Familiarity. Boards in flow know how each member performs and interacts. They develop a common language and understandings - tacit knowledge - that shapes discussions and decision making. They have a common understanding of goals, a common style, and an ability to respond appropriately. There is a potential downside, though: being so familiar that the group never stops to challenge what needs to be challenged, that shuts down the close listening that must continue, and becomes prone to groupthink.

8. Communication.  That communication within meetings needs to be effective goes without saying. But it's also not enough to develop flow. According to Sawyer, "it's more likely to happen in freewheeling, spontaneous conversations, or in social settings after work or at lunch." Translating that into nonprofit board terms, it's important that members have regular opportunities to interact on a social basis, to share experiences that build cohesion and a shared commitment to their common work.

9. Moving it forward. If it doesn't advance the mission, all of this is for naught. In the end, a board in a state of flow must be looking for ways to advance the work and to make a difference at the end of the day. Sawyer counsels groups to "Listen closely to what's being said; accept it fully, and then extend and build on it."

10. The potential for failure. Governance can be risky business, in the sense that boards are defining and advancing a vision of a better future for their community and the people they serve. That's bold work, if we're doing it right. With that risk comes the potential for failure; that needs to be acknowledged. Obviously, anticipating and reducing certain risks is a core responsibility of nonprofit governance. But there is another kind of risk that comes with the work: the kind that comes from leading with strength and courage. As Sawyer points out, "The twin sibling of innovation is failure." Without it, creativity is impossible. Boards in flow understand this and aren't stifled by the scary "what ifs" of stepping out into uncharted territory. They balance these many tensions and make a difference in the process.

I've only begun to reflect on whether I've ever witnessed a board in flow. I do know I've never experienced a board in flow (though I've been part of many boards that managed to do good work). It gives me hope for what is possible when this environment exists, and it reaffirms for me the importance of continuing to build boards' capacity to lead creatively and effectively.

I'm interested in your experiences and insights. Have you ever experienced a board in flow? What factor(s) do you consider to be most critical to facilitating that state? Which factor(s) seem most likely to inhibit our ability to reach flow in a board setting?

For the ultimate overview of flow, watch Czikszentmihalyi's TED Talk video:

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Overheard: June 8

Sharing a few of my favorite nonprofit board-related links from the week just ended:

Innovating from the boardroom: Cultivating a future quotient (Lucy Marcus)

The only thing better than reading Lucy's wisdom on high-performing, future-focused boards is watching and listening to her do the same. This week, thanks to Amplify Festival 2013 ("Australia's leading festival for discussing business innovation"), we get to have that experience. In this talk, Lucy describes five factors - infrastructure, technology, internationalism, communication, and continuity and change - that facilitate future-proofing the boardroom. The links to one of my favorite Marcus works, "Future Proofing the Boardroom: Grounding and Stargazing," are clear. As a bonus, I'll share the link to a visual representation of the talk. Some of the five factors may appear more obvious than others to small, local nonprofit boards; but the impact exists and agency leaders need to realize that (and act accordingly).

Board candidates: Who are they really? (Nancy Iannone)

This perfect post exemplifies why any submission by my friend, Nancy, is a gift in my RSS feed. There are many reasons to value this particular entry. One of the biggest: her encouragement to not just accept any live body that walks in the door, but to take time getting to know the unique potential of a prospective board member (and shares questions designed to do just that). Two, as an introvert, I appreciated her attention to the quieter qualities that our personality type brings to the tablein ways that complement those of our more extroverted peers.

Board induction (Steven Bowman)

Earlier this week, I shared a quote from, and a link to, a podcast episode by Steven that sparked reflection on how we frame the ultimate responsibilities of nonprofit governance. I found myself lingering after that episode ended, listening to others that I hadn't yet discovered. This was one that especially resonated. Two messages that leaped out at me immediately as I listened: Recruiting for personal qualities first, THEN skills; and setting high expectations as essential (they'll either rise to meet them or flee. Either way, Steven says, we win.).

Who's on your nonprofit board: Partners, passengers, prisoners, protestors? (Gayle Gifford)

My many previous links to Gayle's work are a dead giveaway that her impact on my understanding of what effective boards do. This one introduced me to a new framework for thinking about the range of functional and dysfunctional roles that we may encounter around the table. Given that my informal theme for the year is "process and practice," I found it to be particularly timely. We human beings are complex individuals who often defy neat and orderly attempts to categorize. But frameworks like this one can help us open the door to discussions about what we do - and don't do - that facilitate or hinder our capacity to work well together.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Boards: Future-driven community choices

Perhaps the greatest blessing of social media has been the chance to engage with, and learn from, great thinkers and practitioners from around the world. This week, while catching up on Steven Bowman's podcast episodes, this marvelous quote leaped out at me.

Steven made that statement in an excellent episode, titled "Using Vision for Board Excellence." Obviously, one of the reasons I follow pretty much everything Steven says is because we share similar visions of the power and potential of nonprofit boards. The way he has framed the ultimate purpose of nonprofit boards is an especially concise reminder that the future is our domain and our community - however we define it - is for whom we work.

I encourage you to ponder Steven's quote and consider whether/how your board's work is set up to fulfill that purpose. How much of your time and energy do you spend looking to the future versus events that happened in the past? How much thought do you put into exploring the many choices that likely exist for any major decision before your board? And how do you gauge and incorporate the good of the community in those actions? Does your board model what my wise friend lays out for us?

I also encourage you to listen to the podcast in which he made the statement (and every episode that he's shared so far). I guarantee your board horizons will be expanded with each listen.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Mission passion: Is "too much" possible?

Is it possible to have too much passion for your nonprofit's mission?

I never thought I'd find myself considering any answer but "Never!" to that question. But I recently worked with a board where reining in members' deep commitment to the organization's purpose - at least in terms of recruiting future members - actually made some sense.

While this is a marvelous example of board-level self-awareness, I want to be respectful of our confidential relationship and share only enough detail to set the context for this conversation:

  • This board's mission draws often disparate interests. The potential for broad, community-based engagement and support is massive. So, too, is the potential for conflict.
  • The specialized nature of the work invites expertise from multiple academic fields, the professions they populate, and myriad governmental organizations that monitor and sometimes fund work and resources in their mission area.
  • The work of this organization is necessarily detail-driven, long-term projects that require both deep expertise to implement and broad community connection skills to engage stakeholders.
  • Founding board members had/have deep connections to the work and the skills and networks to ensure success. They also have deep commitment to ensuring hard-won, successful outcomes.
  • They have major, visible "successful outcomes" as a result of that sustained effort and commitment.

Most of us would think we'd died and gone to nonprofit heaven with such a mix, right?

Of course. But board members wisely recognized that there is a potential dark side that can hamper recruitment of the kind of diverse membership that it needs to grow and succeed in its next chapter.

We identified two things:

First, their level of commitment going into the work was unusual. It obviously was critical to getting this organization off the ground and to moving forward on work that would overwhelm others. But it is unrealistic to expect that all new members recruited to this leadership team will have anything resembling the passion that got them to this point.

Second, if they insist on bringing in that same level of expertise and commitment with every new recruit, they are likely to end up with duplicates of themselves. That's not what they need to move forward.  While they do require the mission-area expertise and understanding of processes related to that work, they also need to begin extending their reach and their effectiveness communicating with (and engaging) audiences from vastly different backgrounds. They also need to continue to build their collective capacity to monitor organizational processes and resources. That can't happen if everyone around the table has the same knowledge base, same connections, same way of thinking about the work and the world.

I've added a third, general observation since our discussion. Members who use their own deep passion as the bar by which all board peers should be measured risk creating an insider/outsider divide that can only challenge group effectiveness. While we didn't address that specifically, I trust that this board already understands and wishes to avoid that scenario.

It was, to say the least, an unusual conversation. I usually am reinforcing the idea that "Commitment - preferably passion - for the mission is the recruitment bottom line." Frankly, that hasn't always been the easiest idea to sell. I tend to hold up passion as the ideal. Hey, if the typical board can find someone reasonably knowledgeable about its mission and willing to work on it, that board considers itself lucky. This definitely was a twist for me, if not this particular group.

Now, my board friends have some major work to do. That was what brought us together in the first place. But as I revisit this exchange today, I'm realizing that it may end up being a critical component of the group's future success. It may end up being the difference between a "working" board that has accomplished important work in very little time and a "governing" board that will lead it into a bigger vision of the future with the significant support of a broader base of stakeholders who share that vision.